"I DON'T FIND ANYTHING in current events funny anymore," said Tom Lehrer '57 at a recent dinner held in his honor at Lowell House. And this malaise certainly applies to Lehrer's latest effort, Tomfoolery, a revue of 27 of his musical diatribes written between 1955 and 1965. A generation has passed between the composing of these sardonic songs and the creation of Tomfoolery; college and high school students who enjoy his lyrics today had not yet entered kindergarten when Lehrer was at his prime.
And so the obvious flaw in this production is that while the world and its problems have changed over the past 20 years, the songs are preserved unchanged. The witty lyrics still draw laughter from the audience, but the barbs of social criticism have grown blunt with time. As Terrence Currier '57, one of the actors in the Boston production, puts it, "Tom considers political satire dead ever since Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize."
That in a sentence sums up what is both right and wrong about Tomfoolery: the show relies on nostalgic appeal and not on fresh ideas. The social and political institutions which his one liners--set to simplistic and repetitive melodies--poke fun at are dated.
Predictably, the songs which spoof timeless issues have survived well. The revue includes some of his best, like "Vatican Rag," "New Math," "Pigeons in the Park," "Masochism Tango," and, of course. "Fight Fiercely, Harvard." But at least a quarter of the two-hour long show included songs which focus on either nuclear destruction, global pollution, or the folk songs popular 15 years ago. And while "Werner Von Braun," "Who's Next," and "The Folk Song Army" elicits chuckles, the overriding feeling is one of nostalgia, not of aroused social awareness.
In an attempt to retain the original flavor but appeal to a 1983 audience who might not have been around in 1964. Lehrer has changed a few of the more duted lyrics, but purists won't appreciate the minor improvement. One noted exception lies in the "National Brotherhood Week" refrain: Instead of having "Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark of Selma, Alabama, dancing cheek to cheek," he has the equally improbable duo of Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass) and Jerry Falwell taking up the pose.
Not surprisingly, the Boston production attracts an audience composed mostly of middle-aged couples who attended Lehrer's concerts and bought his albums in their college days, and college students who discovered in Lehrer a blend of Monty Python and Mark Russell with a touch of Russell Baker mixed in and set to music. They already know all the lines, and when one of the more heinous puns draws a few hisses, it is reminiscent of a rowdy Sanders Theatre audience.
But the intimate theater in the round structure of the Charles Playhouse makes up for some of this lost rapport. The use of a five-member band on the stage preserves the nightclub ambience which must have been characteristic of Lehrer's own performances.
Currier and Timothy Jerome, both veterans of an earlier Tomfoolery production by Wasington's Arena Stage Company, stand out in the small three man, one woman cast. The most avid fans will notice that Lehrer's own recorded performances are sharper and better paced than the foursome's delivery, but, after all, he wrote them as a solo act with only himself in mind.
TOMFOOLERY is an entertaining stroll through Lehrer's "off-centered world"--likely to amuse those new to that world, and enchant those who have been waiting two years, or 20, to see that world brought to the stage again. Forget that the punch and irreverence have mellowed with age, and sit back and enjoy the humor. You're sure to leave the Playhouse happily humming. And when the Harvard Band strikes up "Fight Fiercely" next Saturday, make Tom proud and sing along. It's still more irreverent than "Ten Thousand Men."